Kenseth Seeks Triple Play

Before heading for the bright lights of Las Vegas, some lasting impressions from the big race in Mexico City.

If anyone doubts the wisdom of the career game plan chosen by Martin Truex Jr., it's time for a second assessment. Months before clinching the 2004 Busch Series championship in his first full season of competition, Truex said he was in no hurry to make the leap to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series ranks. Unlike some Busch Series standouts who couldn't wait to ditch their B-league cars and dash to the majors, the New Jersey native stated he wanted to make an ordered and logical progression to NEXTEL Cup racing – not exactly the kind of thinking one would expect from a driver in this hurry-up-and-go-faster profession.

Having arrived in Mexico City for NASCAR's inaugural dustup over the eight-turn Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez course feeling he had been written off in favor of local talent who had raced the course previously and the usual road-course ringers, Truex got on the horn with team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who with tutoring from road warrior Boris Said has recently begun to enjoy swerving through the esses. Earnhardt told him to ignore the doubters, hit the track locked and loaded and have himself a blast.

Although his day wasn't exactly a fiesta, Truex not only held off the likes of road-course veterans Ron Fellows, Adrian Fernandez and Said, he built up such a lead over the final laps that had he kept going he would have beat his rivals to Las Vegas by half a day.

Is it just coincidence that Earnhardt is the most recent driver to have stuck around to win two consecutive Busch Series titles (1998-99) before heading for the big time? No way, says Truex.

"When we first sat down, Dale Jr. was very clear and very straight with me about what steps he thought I should take before racing (Cup)," says Truex of his mentor. "I know a lot of people have this view of him as a guy who wants to do everything fast, just bam-- get it done. But really, he has a plan for things. And right now I'm the one who's getting the best from those plans."

Speaking of which, it's fairly obvious who has the right blueprints entering Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: The drivers coming out of the stables of Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick.

With only two races to date it's too early to make sweeping statements about the effects on the competition of new rules regarding the qualifying format, tires and spoilers, but it appears the teams that invested heavily in pre-season testing at Daytona, California and Las Vegas will also draw the best odds at the gently-banked (12-degree) 1.5-mile track.

Having started the season on a high note, with Jeff Gordon winning the Daytona 500 and Jimmie Johnson finishing fifth, the Hendrick squad rolled into California with equally high expectations. The left-coast race, however, wasn't kind to the troops, with uncharacteristic engine failures sidelining Gordon (30th) and Brian Vickers (21st). Also hit: Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs, whose Hendrick-built engines lasted 180 and 229 laps, respectively.

Still, with Johnson second and a Hendrick-powered Mike Bliss finishing 12th, Hendrick engine development director Jeff Andrews called the glitch a part-design issue which his team expected to quickly resolve.

"It's a bummer and we're concerned," says Gordon. "But we'll get to the bottom of it."

With the Hendrick contingent temporarily on the ropes, the momentum at California swung quickly to Roush, with Greg Biffle visited in victory lane by reigning series champion Kurt Busch (who finished 3rd), Carl Edwards (5th) and Mark Martin (7th). The Roush troops not only head to Las Vegas with four drivers in the top-five in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series standings – Busch is first; Martin, Edwards and Biffle third through fifth – but with the added oomph that comes from Matt Kenseth being the two-time and defending race champion.

Coming off an engine problem and Daytona and a flat tire at California, however, Kenseth is quick to caution that past success – at a track or in the standings – isn't the predictor of how a driver will perform that some might imagine.

"When you run well at a track, you look forward to going back there, but it doesn't guarantee success this time," says Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. "I'd rather run good, lead laps and be capable of winning races then leading and not winning because of circumstances. We understand these deals work in cycles; sometimes nothing can go wrong and you can't mess up, but sometimes nothing is right. We're just trying to be patient."

Entering Las Vegas an uncharacteristic 36th in points, Kenseth says it's too early in the season to concern himself with his lack of top-10 finishes or where he sits in the standings. With equal confidence in his own talent and the first-class resources of the Roush organization, Kenseth says it's only a matter of time until he starts to climb the ladder.

"But if we have another bad week or two," he adds, "we will start worrying a bit. We just need some momentum."

So is it a blessing or a curse that his garage mates are running so well while he seems to be losing pace?

"Honestly, where we are right now there are 35 cars in front of us in the points and we have to beat all of them to get where (we want to be), including my teammates," he says. "On Sundays when they have success, hopefully that will spill over to us, too."

Pit notes: When in Vegas . . . Rusty and Kenny Wallace, Ryan Newman, Jason Leffler, Travis Kvapil and Richard Childress will join two-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. at the Golden Nugget for the $100,000 Mobil High Endurance Charity Poker Challenge, with the winner's $50,000 pot going to the charity of his choice. Joshes Ken Schrader: "Las Vegas is the one track on the circuit everyone wants to go to." Because of the great side-by-side racing? "Not exactly."

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